Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Drinking champagne from a lady's satin slipper II

Alas there was obviously no convenient berth in my new book, The Finger: A Handbook, for an exhaustive or even cursory account of the bizarre custom of drinking champagne from a lady’s white satin slipper, but lately I have made some progress in that department. On Saturday, March 17, 1855, readers of the Supplement to the Courant (Vol. 20, No. 6) in Hartford, Conn., found the following report lurking at the bottom right hand corner of page 47:

A BOMBE BOUCHE.—A Mr. Tumerelli [actually Édouard Petrovich Turnerelli], a gentleman who is said to have traveled in Russia, has been lecturing in London on the “social and moral characteristics of the Russian people.” He related the following anecdote: “When Madame [Marie] Taglioni [the great ballerina] quitted St. Petersburgh, she left a pair of slippers at the hotel. The landlord soon made his good fortune known, and 50, 100, and even 200 roubles (£20) were freely offered for the forgotten slippers. The landlord, however, finding the public enthusiasm increase as his raised his demands, peremptorily refused to part with the slippers under 1,000 roubles (£100). This sum being rather more than any individual appeared willing to give, thirty-five persons clubbed together and purchased the slippers. They then wanted to know what to do with them. After many suggestions, none of which gave general satisfaction, it was proposed by one of the speculators, more enthusiastic and original than his fellows, that they should eat them! The landlord of the hotel pronounced the idea to be excellent, and proposed to make a fricassée of them, which was accordingly done, and the thirty-six enthusiasts, with the lecturer as their guest, did actually eat Taglioni’s slippers, and washed them down in bumpers of champagne, in which they drank to the health of the charming danseuse.”

I presume this is what John Cooper was talking about when this all started. Already by the 1850s the concept of drinking champagne from a lady’s slipper was well and truly established, and viewed as sensational. But eating a pair of slippers took the process one step further. One senses the typical hallmarks of a craze. “Beau Nash His Ghost,” a pseudonymous contributor to the London Lady’s Companion, remarked: “Out of Mademoiselle [Henriette] Sontag’s shoe was champagne outrageously drunk in chorus in the days of Sontag-olatry when [P. T.] Barnum was a baby” (“High Heads and High Heels: A Fragment,” The North American Miscellany, Vol. 2, No. 23, Saturday, July 5, 1851, p. 436).

Henriette Sontag was born in 1806, and made her operatic debut at the age of 15. Three years later she was the soprano soloist at the première of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor (Opus 125), and was thereafter a great, great star until 1854 when she died of cholera in Mexico.

If the outrageous podiatric choral champagne-quaffing associated with “Sontag-olatry” took place at the height of her fame in the 1830s—not quite when Barnum was a baby; he was born in 1810—then this surely squares with what the critic of the Argus remembered about “exquisites” and “mashers” in “Fops’ Alley” during the reign of King William IV, and also implies a continental provenance.

Even in the midst of so traumatic a crisis as the Crimean War, one foreign correspondent (“The Crimean Year—From Alma to the Malakhoff,” Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 22, October 1855, p. 62) made room for an explicit allusion to this strange practice when describing near Sebastopol the humiliating capture and confiscation by Captain Peel of a traveling carriage belonging to the Russian Commander-in-Chief, Prince Aleksander Sergeyevich Menschikoff. The “curious and heterogenous” contents of Prince Menschikoff’s luggage included Hussars’ uniforms, furs, tortoise-shell looking glasses, “military memoranda, stars and orders, a case of champagne, and a lady’s satin slipper.”

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